The Jorge Vazquez Option

(N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg)

With the rotation questions answered (pending physicals), the attention has shifted to the Yankees’ now vacant DH position. It didn’t take the team long to get in touch with Johnny Damon, Carlos Pena, and Hideki Matsui, but with limited room in the budget they might look for an even cheaper solution. Buster Olney, Bryan Hoch, and Andy Martino each reported over the weekend that the Yankees consider Triple-A masher Jorge Vazquez a potential DH option heading into the season.

As Marc Carig recently explained, the Yankees found Vazquez when Michael Fishman, their in-house stats guru, got a whiff of his impressive stats in the Mexican League. From 2005-2008, the man they call Chato — Spanish for “short and chunky,” according to Carig — hit .352/.405/.698 with an average of 25 homers per year in a league where the season is less than 110 games long. Lee Sigman is the team’s top scout in Mexico, and he swooped in to sign Vazquez after he popped up on the team’s radar.

Unsurprisingly, Vazquez has done nothing but mash during his two and a half years in the organization. He owns a .284/.327/.555 batting line with 63 homers in 261 games between Double and Triple-A, and he goes back to Mexico for winter ball every year and does more of the same. This winter he put up a .330/.397/.618 line with 18 homers in 56 games. In 174 games between the regular season and winter ball, he hit 50 balls out of the park.

“He can hit homers everywhere,” said Ramiro Pena to Carig after playing with Vazquez for a number of years in Mexico. “Everybody down there in Mexico knows Chato … Tremendous power. He makes it look so easy.”

Yankees fans caught a glimpse of Vazquez last Spring Training, when he hit .412/.444/.765 with three homers in 35 plate appearances, including this mammoth blast over the batter’s eye in dead center. He few months prior to that he was named MVP of the Caribbean Series.

“He’s a major-league bat,” said Brian Cashman to Carig. “But he’s blocked more than anything else.”

Being blocked is just a small problem because Vazquez is a true DH without any defensive value, and now that job is wide open. He can stand at first base and receive throws from other infielders as well as fake third base in the way Eric Hinske can, but that’s about the extent of his defensive skills. Playing him in the field is a non-option for a contending team. But like I said, that’s just a small problem. There’s a much bigger one.

As great as Chato’s minor league and winter ball performance has been, and he has really been superb, his plate discipline numbers are a major cause for concern. In his 1,096 plate appearances since signing with the Yankees, Vazquez has struck out 314 times and unintentionally walked just 47 times. That’s a 28.6% strikeout rate and a 4.3% walk rate. The only big leaguer with a 25%+ strikeout rate and a sub-5% walk rate in single season over the last three years was Miguel Olivo (27.6 K% and 3.6 BB%) in 2011, who has the advantage of being a pretty good defensive catcher. JoVa put up those rates in the minors as a defensively challenged first baseman approaching his 30th birthday (he’ll be 30 in March).

The strikeout and walk rates indicate some kind of problem, but we don’t know exactly what it is from here. It could be breaking balls, inside fastballs, first pitch changeups, who knows. Whatever the problem is, it’s resulted in extreme strikeout issues and plate indiscipline. For what it’s worth, ZiPS projects a .235/.275/.449 batting line with 23 homers, 20 walks, and 138 strikeouts given 400+ at-bats next season while CAIRO v0.2 pegs him for a .231/.281/.439 line with 28 homers, 33 walks, and 177 strikeouts in 500+ at-bats. Remember, projections are not predictions, just a reasonable estimate of talent level.

In a recent ESPN Insider-only piece, Kevin Goldstein looked at the concept of Quad-A players like Vazquez, the guys that are too good for Triple-A but not good enough for MLB. He notes that one of the main reasons why these guys are limited is because of an inability to make adjustments, especially when advanced scouts start picking the guy’s game apart. Some players shed the label like Nelson Cruz did, but most aren’t so lucky. Vazquez has very real power, but given that his strikeout rate has gotten worse every year since signing with the Yankees, we have reason to believe he can’t make those necessary adjustments and contribute to the big league team.

Barring something unexpected, we’ll see Chato in Spring Training one way or another. He might be a replacement in the second half of games like last year, or he might be competing for the team’s DH job. Hey, maybe there’s value in having a guy who will sabotage a first pitch fastball hidden in a lineup of patient hitters, but I have a hard time buying that argument. Vazquez has significant flaws both at the plate and in the field, and on top of that he’s not a great fit as a right-handed hitter, assuming they’re looking for someone to split time with Andruw Jones. There’s always a chance something will click and JoVa will figure it out, but I’m not counting on it and neither should the Yankees.

Yanks have been in contact with Hideki Matsui

With their DH job now up for the grab, the Yankees have been in contact with Hideki Matsui according to Jon Heyman. Since they reportedly only have about $2M to spend on a bat, it figures that they’d go for players they know to try to maximize value.

Matsui, now 37, had the worst season of his MLB career in 2011, posting a .306 wOBA and 93 wRC+ with a dozen homers for the Athletics. It wasn’t just the ballpark either, his .313 road wOBA was below average as well. Aside from a ridiculously hot 24 game stretch after the All-Star break (.432/.481/.663), Godzilla was pretty awful last year. Given Matsui’s well-documented knee problems, I’d rather have Johnny Damon assuming similar contracts, but that’s just me.

Josh Norris speaks with Kevin Long

Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long was at the Princeton Charter School this afternoon as part of his series of clinics for children throughout the northeast, and Josh Norris managed to grab him for a short Q&A session beforehand. Long says he’s worked with just about everyone in the regular lineup this offseason, but he also spoke about the work his done with Austin Romine and the since-traded Jesus Montero. Romine has eliminated his leg kick (before, after), which is a point of emphasis for Long. It’s a quick read, so make sure you check it out.

Open Thread: John Flaherty

(Getty Images Photo / Ezra Shaw)

Remember how many bad backup catchers the Yankees went through during the Jorge Posada era? There was Chris Widger, Kelly Stinnett, Wil Nieves, Chris Turner, Todd Greene … I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. Posada’s primary backup from 2003-2005 was current YES analyst John Flaherty, who signed with the team on this date nine years ago.

Like most backup backstops, Flaherty was terrible, hitting just .226/.261/.387 with a dozen homers in 389 plate appearances in pinstripes. He’ll always have that big hit though, the walk-off double single to left in the 13th inning against the Red Sox on July 1st, 2004. That’s the game when Derek Jeter flipped into the stands and the Yankees scored two runs in the bottom of the 13th thanks to a rally fueled by Tony Clark, Ruben Sierra, Miguel Cairo, and Flaherty. That hit was easily his most memorable with the team, and also the most memorable by a non-Posada catcher in the last 15 years or so. It was pretty sweet.

* * *

Here is your open thread for the night. The Knicks and Nets already played, so it’s just the Islanders that are in action tonight. Us Time Warner folk still don’t have MSG though. Talk about whatever you like here, anything goes.

Yankees avoid arbitration with Phil Hughes

The Yankees and Phil Hughes have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract for 2012, the team announced. His agent says the deal is worth $3.2M with performance bonuses, so he received just a $500k raise thanks to his disaster season. A repeat of his 2010 effort would have bumped Phil’s salary north of $5M. Hughes was arbitration-eligible for the second time, meaning he’ll go through this again next offseason then qualify for free agency the offseason after that.

Noon ET tomorrow is the deadline for teams and their eligible players to submit arbitration figures, so a bunch of signings will happen in the morning. The Yankees have five more players up for arbitration: Russell Martin, David Robertson, Joba Chamberlain, Boone Logan, and Brett Gardner. MLBTR has projected salaries.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Carlos Pena

One area where the Yankees’ offense stands to improve over 2011 is at the DH spot. Last season their DHs hit a combined .251/.336/.450, which ranked sixth in the AL. Now, with at most half of a DH platoon already on the roster, the Yankees have an opportunity to move up the DH ranks and add to their offense. This morning Mike examined Johnny Damon’s case and determined that if money is truly a factor, Damon makes enough sense. In the post he mentioned another name, though, that makes plenty more sense from a performance standpoint.

The Yankees and Pena are no strangers. In early 2006, following his release by the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees signed him to a minor league contract. A year later he was tormenting them as a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He stuck with Tampa for for years, belting 20 home runs against the Yankees in that span. Even before that, the Yankees were part of the trade that sent Pena from Oakland to Detroit. That, as you’ll regrettably remember, was the trade that netted the Yankees Jeff Weaver. Here’s what Pena would bring the Yanks if the two parties were to reunite.

Pros

  • He absolutely mashes right-handed pitching. Since 2009 only 24 hitters have fared better than Pena’s 130 wRC+ against righties. In terms of pure power only six have hit righties better. That plays well for the heavy half of a platoon.
  • He has the experience. Not only did he spend four years in the AL East, producing a 134 wRC+ in that span, but he’s also been around in the postseason. In 80 postseason PA he’s hit .269/.388/.522 with four homers. It’s a tiny sample, but for all the emphasis on postseason failure and success, Pena is a great success.
  • He’s worked with Kevin Long in the past. In fact, they worked together during the 2006 season, which immediately preceded Pena’s breakout.
  • He’s a quality defender at first, and could step in should Mark Teixeira get hurt. That is, he provides some insurance.
  • It’s hard to understate how his righty bashing helps his case. It’s a pretty big point in his favor.

Cons

  • He probably won’t come cheap. After his 2010 season, in which he produced a 105 wRC+, he took a one-year deal with the Cubs in order to rebuild his value. He did that, igniting in the second half on his way to a 119 wRC+. The Cubs paid him $10 million, so it seems unlikely he’d sign for less than that — unless the market has completely bottomed out on him.
  • He’s not effective against lefties, producing just a .306 OBP since 2009 despite a 14.1 percent walk rate. Oddly, though, the three pitchers off whom he has homered the most often — Andy Pettitte, Jon Lester, and Bret Cecil — are all lefties.
  • His defensive value is negated by his lack of playing the field. It also means he’s essentially a DH only, limiting roster flexibility.

While it’s not common to see a player of Pena’s caliber take a pay cut, especially after he succeeded in having a rebound season, the market for Pena appears a bit thin. The only two teams connected to him so far are the Indians and the Rays, two teams that aren’t exactly rolling in cash. The Brewers could make sense, but they say they’re maxed out. Other than that, we’re down to non-contenders such as the Orioles and Pirates. The market, then, seems to favor the Yankees. Even near their payroll ceiling, they likely have more resources than all of the above teams. They won’t go out and bid big for him, but if they continue their patient streak, the Yanks could find Pena falling into their laps. He’d be a great fit for a platoon DH role in 2012.

The Long-Term Catching Situation

(Al Bello/Getty)

As I said on Saturday morning, the trade of Jesus Montero has some far-reaching implications for the Yankees organization. First and foremost they’ll miss his offense, but he also factored into the team’s long-term catching situation. Granted, very few people not employed by the Yankees actually think he can stick behind the plate long-term, but his name had to be included any time we discussed the team’s future behind the plate. That has changed, obviously.

Thankfully, the catcher position is not an immediate concern. Russell Martin will be back as an arbitration-eligible player in 2012, projected to earn $6.7M by MLBTR’s system before becoming a free agent after the season. He was exactly league average on offense during his first season in pinstripes (.325 wOBA and 100 wRC+), which means he was better than the average AL catcher (.307 wOBA and 91 wRC+). Defensive metrics are imperfect (especially for backstops), but he definitely helped prevent runs with his glovework. Martin will be the regular catcher in 2012, there was little doubt about that even before the trade.

I have to think Austin Romine was pretty thrilled to find out that Montero had been traded, allowing him to finally step out of his shadow and solidify his position as the team’s catcher of the future, at least in theory. Even though he made his big league debut in September, Romine needs to get a couple hundred at-bats in Triple-A, which he should have received in 2011 but didn’t because of Montero. He’ll get those at-bats this summer while Frankie Cervelli backs up Martin, then hopefully force his way into the 2013 picture.

Further down the minor league ladder is J.R. Murphy, who made enough progress behind the plate in 2011 that staying at catcher long-term is no longer a pipe dream. Gary Sanchez is right behind him, but the reports on his defense have been pretty rough over the last year. Both guys can hit, more than Romine can, but they’re also several levels away from the big leagues and we all know how much can wrong when you’re talking about kids in Single-A. Both are a footnote in the team’s long-term plans at the moment, so it’s basically up to Romine to provide help behind the plate in the next few seasons. The only problem is that catching prospects tend to develop late, so his timetable might not line up perfectly with the team’s needs.

Because of the large learning curve — a new pitching staff and new hitters to study — and the physical wear-and-tear associated with the position, it takes catchers longer to adjust to big league life than any other type of position player. The Buster Posey and Joe Mauer types that come up and provide immediate impact are the exception while Matt Wieters-like growing pains are the rule. Having a veteran caddy to ease the transition is certainly preferable to just rolling the dice and hoping for the best with the kid, especially when you’re trying to contend. That veteran caddy for Romine could very well be Martin, who has expressed an interest in remaining with the Yankees beyond 2012.

“If you are asking me if I want to be here, yes, but they are in a nice position with the quality of kids they have,” said Martin to George King back in September. Brian Cashman has praised his backstop since signing him last December, but also said a long-term contract “hasn’t been discussed” as of a month ago. For what it’s worth, Martin’s agent did acknowledged that his client would consider a multi-year pact with the Yankees, and Moshe explored the merits of a such a deal earlier this offseason. In a perfect world, he’d take nothing more than two or three-year contract and help gradually usher in the Romine era, like Joe Girardi helped usher in the Jorge Posada era a generation ago.

The Yankees have a long tradition of great hitting catchers, but Montero won’t be around to carry the torch. Murphy and Sanchez might be able to fill that role down the road, but we’re several years away from that. Romine won’t have that kind of offensive impact, but he has the tools to be a sound defensive backstop while being a non-zero with the stick in the future. That’s a valuable player — especially at or near the league minimum — but the Yankees are going to have to make sure he’s given adequate support. Martin on a medium-term contract extension makes some sense, but if he’s not open to it, it would behoove the team to find a veteran backstop to ease their young catcher into the lineup.